James' and Barbara's love

Book 15, pages 256-258

One day I saw in the New York times a picture of Mayor Lindsay presenting a bouquet of flowers to a "heroic" police officer in a hospital bed. It said that he had been shot down while "entering an apartment." I decided to find out what was actually behind this incident and nosed around the Bronx for several days to find the relatives and the apartment where it all took place. Little by little I found out what had happened. James and Barbara were a young black couple who lived in the worst neighborhood in the U.S.A. around Fox Street in the South Bronx. One day they heard burglars on the roof and called the police. Two plain-clothes officers arrived at the apartment and kicked in the door without knocking. James thought it was the burglars who were breaking in, and he shot at the door, but was then himself killed by the police. Barbara ran screaming into the neighbor's apartment. When I went to the 41st Precinct police station they confirmed the story and admitted that "there had been a little mistake," but James of course "was asking for it, being in possession of an unregistered gun."

I was by now so used to this kind of American logic that I did not feel any particular indignation toward the officer. I just felt that he was wrong. Since I had spent so much time finding out the facts of the case. I might as well go to the funeral, too. I rushed around town trying to borrow a nice shirt and arrived at the funeral home in the morning about an hour before the services. I took some pictures of James in the coffin. He was very handsome. I admired the fine job the undertaker had done with plastic to plug up the bullet holes. Black undertakers are sheer artists in this field; even people who have had their eyes torn out they can get to look perfectly normal. Since black bodies arrive in all possible colors and conditions, they use almost the entire color spectrum in plastic materials. James did not make any particular impression on me; I had already seen so many young black corpses. The only thing I wondered about was that there wasn't any floral wreath from the police. I waited about an hour, which was to be the last normal hour that day. Not more than ten people came to the funeral, all of them surprised at seeing a white man there. A young guy whispered to me that he thought it was a little unbecoming for a white man to he present at this particular funeral. Then suddenly I heard terrible screams from the front hall and saw three men bringing Barbara in. Her legs were dragging along the floor. She was incapable of walking. I could not see her face, but she was a tall, beautiful, light-skinned young woman. Her screams made me shudder. Never before had I heard such excruciating and pain-filled screams. When she reached the coffin, it became unbearable. It was the first and only time in America I was unable to photograph. I had taken pictures with tears running down my cheeks, but had always kept myself at such a great distance from the suffering that I was able to record it. When Barbara came up to the coffin, she threw herself down into it. She lay on top of James and screamed so it cut through marrow and bone. I could only make out the words, "James, wake up, wake up!" again and again. The others tried to pull her away, but Barbara didn't notice anything but James. I was at this point completely convinced that James would rise up in the coffin. I have seen much suffering in America, but I have often perceived in the midst of the suffering a certain hypocrisy or even shallowness, which enabled me to distance myself from it. Barbara knocked my feet completely out from under me. Everything began to spin before my eyes. It must have been at that point that I suddenly rushed weeping out of' the funeral home. I ran for blocks just to get away. My crying was completely uncontrollable. I staggered down through Simpson and Prospect Streets, where nine out of ten die an unnatural death. Robbers and the usual street criminals stood in the doorways, but I just staggered on without noticing them, stumbling over garbage cans and broken bottles. It was a wonder that no one mugged me, but they must have thought I had just been mugged.

When I got to James' and Barbara's apartment building, still crying, I asked some children if there was anyone up in the apartment "of the man who was shot the other day." They asked if I didn't mean the man who was shot in the building across the street last night. No, it was in this building, I said. But they had not heard that anyone had been shot in their building. They lived on the third floor and James and Barbara lived on the sixth floor. I went up to the apartment, which now stood empty.

Robbers had already ransacked it, and there were only bits of paper and small things scattered around on the floor. The emptiness of the apartment made me sob even harder. There were bullet holes all over in the living room wall where James had been sitting, but there were only two in the door which the police had kicked open.

There were three locks on the door like everywhere in New York, as well as a thick iron bar set fast in the floor - a safety precaution the police themselves recommend that people use to avoid having their doors sprung open by criminals. James and Barbara had been so scared of criminals that they had put double steel bars on their windows although it was six stories up and there was no fire escape outside. Down in the courtyard there was a three-foot pile of garbage people had thrown out of their windows.

Here James and Barbara had lived since they were sixteen with their now four-year-old daughter. After a couple of' hours I ventured out of the apartment. I had cried so much that I had a splitting headache, and all the way into Manhattan the weeping kept coming back in waves. When I came to a movie theater on the West Side, I wandered in without really knowing what I was doing. It was at that time that movies directed by blacks were being produced for the first time in history. The film was called "Sounder" and was about a poor family in Louisiana in the 1930's. There was an overwhelming sense of love and togetherness in the family, but in the end the father was taken away by the white authorities and sent to a work camp for having stolen a piece of meat. The film was made in Hollywood and romanticized the poverty; after several years in a work camp, the father came back to the family, so the film would have a happy ending.

This wasn't the kind of poverty I had met up with in the South. The only time I cried in the movie was when I saw things that reminded me all too much of James and Barbara. Afterward I wandered over in the direction of Broadway. An old black woman whom I had stayed with in the North Bronx the night before had given me ten dollars so I could get some nice clothes for the funeral. She had at first not trusted me and had spent several hours calling various police stations asking them what was the idea of sending an undercover cop to her house. But when after half a day she had assured herself that I was not a police agent, she was so happy that she gave me the ten dollars, and I had to promise to come stay with her again, and she telephoned to Alaska so I could talk with her daughter who lived up there. Now I still had a little money left over and went in my strange state of mind straight into another movie theater on Broadway and saw "Farewell, Uncle Tom." It was a harrowing film about slavery. It was made by non-Americans (in Italy), so it didn't romanticize slavery. You saw how the slaves were sold at auction, the instruments of torture that were used, and you saw how men were sold away from their wives and children. It was frightful. How could all this have been allowed to happen only a hundred years ago? At some points in the film I almost threw up. I looked around the cinema repeatedly, as I was afraid that there would be blacks in there, but there were only two people in the whole theater besides me. When I got outside, there was a young black guy hanging around with sunglasses on. I stood for a long time looking him in the eyes, and I couldn't understand why he didn't knock me down.

For days afterward I was a wreck. I will never forget that day. It stands completely blank in my diary. A whole year went by before I pulled myself together and sought Barbara out. But when I came to the kitchen at the veterans' hospital where she worked, an old black woman was sent out to talk to me. She told me that she was Barbara's guardian, since Barbara had not been normal since the funeral. She had become very withdrawn and never spoke any more. I asked her what Barbara had been like before James' death. She went into deep thought for a moment and then told me with tears in her eyes about the four years when James and Barbara had worked together there in the kitchen. They had always been happy, singing, and a real joy to the kitchen personnel. They had never missed a day of work, always came in together and always left together at the end of the day. But she wouldn't let me see Barbara, for Barbara did not wish to see anyone.

Another year went by before I sent a letter to Barbara from somewhere in the South. I assumed that by now Barbara had gotten over her husband's murder. When I again went to the kitchen, the same elderly woman met me. It was as if time had not passed at all, and we just continued where we left off. She sighed deeply and looked into my eyes. "Barbara has gone insane," she said.

Barbara kept coming up in my thoughts wherever I traveled. But another event came to make just as strong an impression on me. Somewhere in Florida an unhappy white woman had climbed up a water tower and stood on the edge, about to commit suicide. But she couldn't make herself jump. It was in a ghetto area and a large crowd of people, most of them black, gathered at the foot of the tower. The police and fire department were trying to persuade the woman not to jump, while the crowd shouted for her to jump. I was totally unable to comprehend it. I shouted as loud as I could: "Stop it, stop it, please, let the poor woman live." But their shouts grew louder. It was the worst and most sickening mass hysteria I had ever experienced. Then suddenly it hit me that the screams sounded like Barbara's on that unforgettable morning. I started getting weak in the knees and rushed off, just as fast as at the funeral home. In five years I will try to contact Barbara once more. I must see her face again some day!

Summary of letters



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